Free Thinking about Evelyn Waugh

BBC Radio 3 yesterday broadcast a panel discussion in its Free Thinking series about the life and works of Evelyn Waugh. As previously announced, the panel was moderated by Matthew Sweet and consisted of Alexander Waugh, the writer’s grandson, Adam Mars-Jones, author and critic, and Bryony Lavery, who recently adapted Brideshead Revisited¬†for the stage. Added to the panel was Philip Eade, author of a new biography of Waugh to be published in July.

The panel ranged widely over Waugh’s career starting with a discussion of Brideshead and its adaptations. Lavery¬†noted that in rehearsals for her theatrical production, the actors expressed concern with bits of the story they felt were important to them that had to be left out. Each was given the opportunity to mention in the performances at least one thing¬†they wished had been preserved.¬†

When the panel discussed Waugh’s life, Alexander stressed his grandfather’s otherwise happy middle-class childhood, aside from the favoritism shown by his father to the elder son Alec. Sweet asked Philip Eade about a previously unreported 20 page memoir¬†by Waugh’s first wife, the former Evelyn Gardner, relating to their brief marriage.¬†According to Eade, this memoir tells her side of the story in which she explains that from the start there was “no chemistry between the couple in the bedroom.”

Adam Mars-Jones reported that he is¬†working on a project to produce an opera from Waugh’s short autobiographical novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. A passage in which the voices Pinfold heard gossiping about him is¬†read out as it¬†might appear in an operatic recitative. Mars-Jones is in negotiations with the Waugh estate on going forward with the project.¬†A clip from the BBC’s Frankly Speaking radio interview of Waugh from the 1950s was played, and it was afterwards noted that Waugh had truthfully, carefully and unemotionally answered the interviewers’ increasingly hectoring questions. It was this interview which is said to have triggered the halucinations Waugh suffered and described in Pinfold.

The program closed with Alexander Waugh’s answer to Sweet’s question about what ¬†contemporary writers should learn from his grandfather. His answer: (1) How to put chaos into communicable form; (2) How to write intelligently and clearly; (3) How to put the depth of an entire novel onto a single page; and (4) How to make people laugh.

The program is available over the internet on BBC iPlayer.

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